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grad school, or gap year? chance me! Neuroscience Phd

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 Hi all,

I need some second opinions to help me decide on what to do after graduation. My plan was to take some post-baccalaureate fellowship or work in a lab for a year or two before applying to programs that I like, but after checking the profile of some of the students, I think although the chances are slim, there might be a possibility that I could get in this year. I'm graduating in three years so I think compared to other applicants I might not have as much research experience and I don't have any publication.

 about me: First generation, International student from a middle eastern country, (currently in the US)

high school: top of my class in a very competitive national gifted student school(only 30 students in each class, one school in town) have some experience teaching and doing some research. 

undergrad: University of Oklahoma, Psychology GPA: 3.9, 4.0 Major, 

GRE: not gonna take but from practice tests, I'm guessing > 90th-95th. 

Awards and honors: President list, dean list, some merit scholarship 


this is what I'm not confident about, I'm graduating in three years, so I don't have as much experience compared to a 4-year student, 

by the end of fall 2020 I'd have: 

3 semester in a cognitive psychology lab 

1 semester teaching assistant 

1 semester neuroscience lab 

NO publications.

Letter of recommendation: 

1) from the psychology lab GA whom I've worked with for 1.5 years, 

2) from the psychology professor whom I've taken a class with and I'd TA for her this semester

3) from the professor who I have a class with and also would be in her lab for next semester, 

I'd like to get into one of these programs: Rockefeller( #1 choice), Columbia, UCLA, UCSF, USCD, north Carolina chapel hill, U Penn, U Michigan, CNUP, MIT

what are my chances of getting to these schools? 

 If you have any feedback or comments please let me know. any specific gap year program/ job or research opportunity that would help me increase my chance of getting in, other good programs to consider, or programs that I have a good chance of getting in this year.  




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I'm not sure if this is helpful, but...

I was in a similar spot many years ago applying to Neuroscience PhD programs, with similar stats (and perhaps slightly more research experience - I graduated in 4 years, was involved in lab work each quarter, TAed several courses, and completed an honors research thesis). I did take the general GRE and Psych Subject GRE, scoring >95%. I took a research assistant position in a lab after graduating because I wasn't sure what I wanted to study in a doctoral program and thought RA work would give me more time on my applications. In contrast to my positive bachelor's research experiences, this lab sucked - it was a toxic and rigidly hierarchical, and my former thesis advisor and other research faculty later told me that research lab was known for being toxic and "a factory." I didn't have the wisdom to ask around beforehand about the culture of different labs, and I didn't have a sense of what I was hoping to learn there, which I think is part of why I stayed so long. Anyway, I applied to graduate programs while in this toxic lab and didn't get admitted anywhere except one master's program. I had also applied to RA in other research labs (this time doing the legwork of asking around about lab culture in advance...) and was offered another RA-ship in a much more positive lab environment. The story has a happy ending - I decided to decline both the M.A. admission and the friendlier RA position and changed fields to science education, which I had a nagging interest in. It turns out that I love science teaching (and science teachers), and after several years in the field, I will starting a doctoral program in Science Education at Stanford this fall.

Even though my research assistant job was a terrible experience, I am really glad I took the slow path instead of diving right into a doctoral program. The RA experience gave me some clarity about what it was that I loved most about doing science, and I realized that even in a positive lab environment, the nature of the work that excited me most was central to science education in a way that Neuroscience research was not.

I suspect that main reason I was not admitted to Neuroscience doctoral programs, despite having strong grades/scores/research experiences is that I didn't have a strong statement of purpose. Specifically, I hadn't developed a strong purpose for what/why I wanted to research and how that connected to both my professional goals and the work at those specific programs.

Reading the list of qualifications that you shared, I wondered:

  • What are your reasons for wanting to pursue a neuroscience PhD?
  • How have your prior experiences (in research and in life) inform your goals and ready you for doctoral study? 
  • What are you excited about researching, and why does that matter to you personally, your goals, and the world?  
  • How does that match the research and mentorship available at the programs you listed?

Your compelling articulation of those ideas will matter most to your chances of admission, this year or in the future.

You didn't mention what your role was in your previous research experience, but it sounds like you are thinking that a year or two of RA work might provide deeper opportunities for research experience. My undergraduate thesis advisor (a neuroscience faculty at Stanford) told me: "If you are getting all As, you're not doing enough research," so I think it is reasonable to assume that the depth of your experience will matter for admissions. Additionally, the question that might be more important than "Do I need more research experience to get in?" is "Would this experience help me sharpen my understanding of what I want to study/learn in a doctorate?" 

I know several people who are now happily Neuroscience faculty who took a couple years to work as RAs or lab managers post-baccalaureate, not because they needed to compensate for grades or undergraduate research experience, but because the experience helped them refine their skills and professional interests, build connections (both mentors for strong recs and a network of insights into the social landscape of the field), and seek out the best match for the long haul that is a doctorate. A PhD is a (poorly paid) job as much as it is an education - 5-7 years of training as a research scientist to prepare you for a research career. Taking a couple years to try out full time lab life, particularly in a positive lab culture with strong mentorship, can be a way to test out whether that (sub)field is the one you want to commit most of a decade to, and to learn in advance which PIs to seek out as mentors (or avoid). 


  • Your stats sound strong but your purpose (articulated in your statement of purpose) grounded in your prior research experience is most important to your application.
  • Sometimes the "slower path" to starting a doctorate can lead to a more purposeful, positive doctoral experience.  
  • If you do decide to seek out a fellowship/lab work first, definitely ask around to find out where the happy labs are at (and whose labs to avoid). 




Edited by iheartscience
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